Friday, February 24, 2012

Conservative Power

In the course of an interesting critique of Charles Murray's book Coming Apart, the substance of which I addressed here, Andrew Gelman (via Steve Sailer) writes:

The conservative elites tend to live in different places than the liberal elites and they tend to have influence in different ways (consider, for example, decisions about where to build new highways, convention centers, etc., or pick your own examples), and those differences interest me.

Let me try to articulate what's wrong with this statement. It may well be that many if not most liberals and conservatives buy into the notion that development per se is a partisan issue; if so, it reflects badly on both of our inability to perform rational cost-benefit analysis. But I will nonetheless assert that there is nothing especially conservative about development.

But let's stipulate that conservatives are "pro development". I don't want to minimize the impact that development projects have on local communities, and making decisions about "where to build new highways" represents the power to materially impact people's lives, for good and ill. But even if we agree that nominal conservatives make these decisions, I can't see how such decisions are made on behalf of conservatism, or at least any conservatism that I would recognize.

5 comments:

Elusive Wapiti said...

I'm having difficulty seeing how development is a partisan issue. If anything, I've observed that Lefties tend to be anti-development in a NIMBY sort of way. In that they freeze in amber the wilderness areas in flyover land (and offend red-staters' property rights and/or senses of Constitutionality in the process) so they have something natural to look at when they're not busy being urbane and sophisticated.

Also, as far as I can tell, "conservative" and liberal elites tend to live and associate in the same places. Neither really orbit in red-state places (conservatives) or urban centers (liberals) unless its vote-gettin' time.

Dr. Φ said...

Lefties tend to be anti-development in a NIMBY sort of way. In that they freeze in amber the wilderness areas in flyover land (and offend red-staters' property rights and/or senses of Constitutionality in the process) so they have something natural to look at when they're not busy being urbane and sophisticated.

Well, NIMBYism is kinda the opposite of the national level restrictions on wilderness areas in flyover country that urban liberals never go to but get warm feelings thinking about. It's a complicated issue, but you have a sense for the politics of it. A good chunk of the voting public has been divided into opposing tribes, with liberals being a priori anti development and conservatives being likewise pro development, with little of any realistic que bono analysis by either side of the debate, at least as it manifests itself publicly.

My point is that even if we believed that the fact of development is a victory for "capitalism", and thus "conservatism", I fail to see how the details of the development, supposedly in the control of conservatives (or at any rate the control of the conservative half of our bi-factional ruling class) are exercised on behalf of conservative ends. Or rather, I can easily imagine how the "location of a convention center" affects my interests as a property owner and resident, but I can't imagine how its location affects my interests as (take your pick) a Christian, a gun owner, a straight white man, or an American citizen.

trumwill said...

I may be totally off-base here, but I suspect that where they are coming from is this:

1) We are liberals.

2) Development is not going the way we want development to go.

3) Development must be controlled by not-liberals (aka conservatives).

It's not quite as reductive as that, and there's actually some truth to it. Development is a subject I have a real interest in. Broadly, if not with ideological passion, conservatives tend to be the defenders of suburban development, roads, and the car culture more generally. These are things that liberal attempts to combat with public transportation, mixed-use neighborhoods, and such have been thwarted. Not just by conservatives (NIMBYism of all stripes plays a major role), but partially so. But I think they tend to view it as the general public having been hoodwinked (by conservatives) into thinking they want something (yards, suburbs, cars) that they don't really want.

Liberals and conservatives do, generally, have different ideas of what development should look like. These aren't the sort of battles that your sort of conservatism isn't particularly invested in.

Dr. Φ said...

These aren't the sort of battles that your sort of conservatism isn't particularly invested in.

I may have to add more nuance to this, because now that the discussion has turned from "location of convention centers" to "suburban/exurban vs urban", I will have to concede that conservatives do have an interest in development. Because we move, usually to get away from liberalism and their high misspent taxes, regulation, immigration, and integration.

So yeah, liberals can tell a story about retrograde conservatives slipping through their fingers, building satellite cities and roads to commute on. But conservatives also have a story -- of communities destroyed, of property values wiped out, of schools undermined. On the one hand, I admit that our lives as (to overdramatize a bit) internal refugees is to be preferred to living in a liberal prison camp. But it isn't really the victory we had in mind.

Dr. Φ said...

I'll probably turn this into a separate post, but since it bears on our present discussionn . . .

In one of my look-how-life-turned-out moments, I reflected on how I probably couldn't afford the house I lived in as a young child. So I looked it up on Zillow, and lo and behold, it's estimated at less than my present house. What happened? It's a (relatively) close in suburb to one of the few cities in the country that is prospering in the current recession, famously drawing a large technology company away from the city where I live now.

So I checked city-data.com. The town's median income is less than the state average. It is now less than 50% white, with the rest divided between blacks and hispanics. Back in the 70s, it was almost all white, and my mom tells a story about how real estate agents did their best to keep it that way.

I checked greatschools.net. I have no particular brief for the public elementary school I attended for grades 1 - 3 except that it was better than the public school I attended after that. I had no sense of its "quality", but it was a mostly white school. (I distinctly recall having one black and one asian classmate.)

That school is now majority black, and whites have been reduced to 12%. I am prepared to bet that very few of that 12% come from households in the same social class I came from.

I don't know what happened in the last 35 years to get from there to here. But the story is not a happy one for conservatives.

(I also checked in on my grandparents' house in the same greater metro area. Their community seems to be thriving. (Partial disclosure: their neighborhood was profiled a dozen years ago in a novel of some notoriety -- about a real estate developer.) Their modest little house is worth twice what mine is, and it is surrounded by $1M homes. It's public schools have long since been destroyed, but that keeps the property taxes low, and private schools flourish.)